The show: Fear Society

FEAR SOCIETY (Venice Biennial 2009 - official program Pavilion of Urgency (Jota Castro) - Chiara Agnello - Rainer Ganahl

Interview - about this show between Chiara Agnello and me.



The Fear SocietyToxic Assets or Happiness is not always fun

In Fassbinder’s 1973 film “Angst essen Seele auf” (Fear eats the soul), fear is woven into love, racism, ageism in postwar social repression of the 1970s in Germany. This powerful love drama unfolds in Munich, between a young black Moroccan man, Ali, a “Gastarbeiter” (a so-called “guest worker”, a migrant worker) and a thirty year older lonely German widow, Emmi, a mother of three. Emi’s deceased husband was a former Polish forced worker who left her nothing but a meager pension. In order to get by she had to make ends meet with extra cleaning work. The external and internal stress on the couple ruins Ali, who falls sick from a stomach ulcer. It is a sickness that ironically relates to the title of the movie; being that, angst eats not only the soul, but also, the stomach. With a little fantasy and exaggeration, this film could be seen as a slow motion frozen tableau of an unlikely couple bound to instantaneous sex in a situation of angst, stress and duress. The violence of fear in this film is pinpointed by its grammatically incorrect title taken from a scene, when the couple first realizes where things are heading. “Nix weinen. Nix Angst. Angst essen Seele auf” (No crying, no fear, Fear eats the soul) – and your stomach.

But the really uncanny and scary part of this film came a decade later, in 1982, with the suicide of the main actor, El Hedi ben Salem M'Barek Mohammed Mustapha in a French prison. This erotically and racially exploited and fetishized “man of the market,” as Emmi described him, in significant shorthand to her friends did this after the murder of three people under the influence of alcohol – and most likely out of  stress and angst. It’s only too tragic-comic that Ali’s life took such a cinematic turn and ended the lives of four people, including his own.

The epigraph of “Angst essen Seele auf” reads: “Happiness is not always fun” and has become true for the several generations of American consumers who are now forced to understand that their bills are due, their investments (if any at all) are worth little, and most of their purchases are unneeded and unwanted. The grammatically correct but mostly unread small texts on contracts and credit cards have a life of their own and remind us of another film title by Fassbinder: “Love is Colder Than Death,” from 1969. Around that time, credit cards, the way we know them, (MasterCard founded in 1966) became an industry and just in time for the baby boomer generation.

This generation became sexy consumers in the 1960s, gained economic and social power in the 1970s and claimed political access in the 1980s. By the 1990s the American Baby boomers with – Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, master of the politics of fear, in the driving seat – literally ruled the world.Unlike their predecessors, boomers have no direct memory of the economic misery experienced during the Great Depression or World War II anymore and were accustomed to prosperity and endless expansions. Rolling on credit became as intrinsic to the American dream as apple pie – by the way also payable here by plastic, something no shop in Europe would accept since they insist on minimum spending and even often charge you the credit card fee shops have to pay, something not legal in the USA. 

In the 1980s, Thatcher and Reagan followed up erasing all institutional memory of poverty and misery and started to do away with unions, social safety nets and the social welfare state. The idea of the state as a common good became synonymous with corruption, inefficiency, and big unnecessary spending. For Reagan that state was the problem, not the solution but even the Bill Clinton (like Tony Blair in GB) scaled back many state functions and were big liberalizers. Keynesian economists and politicians were driven out of town and with them market and bank regulations, which often dated back to the Depression years. Lobbyists streamed in and established an industry that threatened the very nature of democracy – or at least, pushed the word of the people back into cash registers, since only industries who are economically firm can successfully lobby – and advertise for the vote of the consumer.

With the demise of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, capitalism became such an unstoppable globalized ballpark that even the largest Communist state on earth, China, has became one of the biggest (state)-capitalist players - anticipated to soon compete directly in dictating the rules of the game. In these days of severe economic crisis, the boomer generation has seen large parts of their considerable savings, (mostly in equities and equity related funds as well as in real estate) gone up in smoke, their health deteriorates without much of a health care system in place while their power and economics dissipates. Ironically, they helped to render health care networks irrelevant and denounced them as “socialized medicine” while being convinced that they’d live forever!! Hillary Clinton, a boomer, lost in the latest American presidential elections to a black Generation X man. However, everybody is now witnessing a tectonic shift in geo-political power and the distribution of national economic might, almost equivalent to the changes brought on by global warming and the scarcity of basic raw materials, energy and water. These core issues had been far too long ignored by many decision makers of that boomer generation.

The cost of this denial, this inaction and the quasi-cinematic suspension of disbelieve is vast. Ever bigger cars had been produced at a time when war and oil start to rhyme, and wake up only when the car companies crash into bankruptcy; creating ever more complex investment vehicles and credit default swaps to hide underlying risks; ignoring basic economic rules as if in anti-gravitational space and make “buy now, pay later” the golden plastic standard; pushing dangerous rate-jumping subprime mortgages on people for houses they can’t afford; not insuring people for health care at a reasonable price but instead insuring exotic toxic assets; privatizing social security and blocking the state as the largest buyer of health care products from negotiating prices; outsourcing for decades nearly all jobs and productions to China and elsewhere and not anticipating the consequences; not investing in basic infrastructures over decades and wondering why they collapse; alienating the world with arrogant power politics and preemptive wars without considering the possibility of failure; heating up the planet and then wondering over melting glaciers, changing sea levels, migrating animals and epidemics; observing a human induced massive extinction of species without asking the question when homo sapiens will be affected by it; creating ever bigger unhealthy companies and hoping that they are too big to fail;  artificially inflating housing markets with foreign sponsored cheap credit so that house owners mistake their properties as cash machines that are automatically recharged. Happiness is not always fun – particularly when credit severely dries up and banks don’t even trust banks! 

Lets return to some more drama - William Foxton, a former British army major in February 2009 committed suicide after losing his life savings in Bernard Madoff’s ponzi scheme. Foxton, unlike Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet (who killed himself in December 2008 for the same reason), wasn’t a professional or institutional investor but an individual who packed his savings into feeder funds of the Madoff’s secret empire not even knowing anything about mister Madoff - the biggest fraudster in modern economic history. Thus the relatively abstract term “Credit Crunch” takes away lives and one understands that behind all this financial lingo there are tragic facts, faces and fates. This kind of news segments rotating through our news cycles reveal a network of interdependencies and world wide collateral damages. The same goes for all Icelanders and the many thousands who invested their money with their computers into high interest accounts located there in the middle of the Atlantic. All these local institutional and individual savers are now left with cold fish skin. It is all suddenly gone and we don’t know what it means – except when we read something between ‘artery clearing systems’ and ‘Obama’s Israeli meetings’ headlines (the soldiers killed in Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan don’t rotate so openly anymore, so it seems or just fails to catch my attention).

Angst and economy have a lot in common. Both are systems dealing with scarcity: the scarcity of food and love, goods and products, services and security. We address scarcity internally with fear and angst and deal with it externally through our economy that produces, exchanges, distributes and consumes products and services we think we need and want. But they are also abstract and difficult to grasp if we look at it from a broader perspective. The ‘Homo Economicus’ (is really a neurotic, self-obsessed, anxiety ridden, gender confused and hysterical person, resembling more test tube rats in pain than the presupposed rational beings making only informed decisions for the best interest. This is why there is so much Schadenfreude, a pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others, in the downfall of our financial system even though we are all hit and feel the squeeze. 

Unfortunately, “Home Economicus”  turns into something else, may be a pathetic, fearful “Homo Empiricus.” Many if not all people make crazy decisions, against their self-interests in the short and long run and with an economic logic that borders those who throw money from the 5th floor while running down and waiting for twice the sum to arrive. This is why there is so much tragic-comic irony and “Schadenfreude” – the pleasure we extract from the misfortune of others - in the downfall of our financial system even thought we are all hit and affected by it in direct or indirect ways. Fear, food and fun spiced with greed and gluttony mix in the stomachs and our souls very well. It let us swallow the elegant and sublime alphabet soup of structured corporate finance like CDOs (collateralized debt obligation), CDSs (Credit Default Swaps); MBSs (mortgage-backed securities) or ABSs (asset-backed securities) before we need financial medicines that also comes in acronyms: TARP (troubled asset relief program), TALF (Term Asset Lending Facility) and EESA (Emergency Economic Stabilization Act) or even the IMF (International Monetary Fund) – an organization that provides bailout for entire states.

In these days, Fassbinders characters would most likely have lived slightly different lives. The woman might have inherited some money or even a pension from one or several funds for WWII slave labor compensation. Both might have had more credit so that the economic drive for that unusual marriage would have been minimal. On the other side, today, marriage is a partial solution for paperless immigrants from Africa and pressure would have been high on Ali for some kind of a solution. Racism would have been experienced less severely or at least less directly which could have opened different avenues for him and even may be those that didn’t lead to the desperate acts of a triple killing and suicide. Needless to say, it’s hard to speculate on these tragic events but the climate has improved somewhat for those minorities, at least, who are successful in society – as he was a movie star.

In these days the religious aspect might have been more of a topic then in the 1970s, since today, stereotyping and fear is distributed very much along the Muslim/non-Muslim line. His homosexuality and intimate relationship with Fassbinder would have played much less a reason for social pressure and stigma and might have even prevented Fasssbinder from overdosing on drugs – in 1982, almost immediately after the suicide of Ali, El Hedi ben Salem M'Barek Mohammed Mustapha. The Boomer generation was politically and economically adventurous and reckless but they did create – and that is nearly worldwide - a more tolerant and inclusive climate towards social, sexual and racial minorities – hence lowered angst levels for a lot of people. Whether these Americans – who weren’t at all exposed to New German Cinema but saw John Cassavetes’ films and the dramas of Gina Rowlands -  will be able to retire like their parents in Florida or on other sunbelts with nostalgic music and films from the 60s and 70s – like their parents did with entertainments from the 40s and 50s – is yet to be seen. Currently, having their live savings severely seen reduced they all line up again  - in disbelieve - for low paying jobs.


other t-shrit projects

Venice Biennial 1999